Politics

The Gandhis: A guide

Updated:

BANGALORE, India — In India’s gargantuan elections, there is magic in the name Gandhi.

It is the one appellation that eclipses all others as 1.37 million electronic voting machines record the choices of 720 million eligible voters in 830,000 polling stations across the country.

The Gandhi family has ruled India for 37 of the last 62 years of its free existence.

And as the month-long polling ends this weekend and judgment day nears, it is increasingly clear that the Gandhi name will continue to hold sway over the destiny of a country of 1.1 billion people.

“In a politics divided by region and religion, language and caste, it is the only name that transcends all divides,” said Ramachandra Guha, historian and author of the bestselling book “India After Gandhi."

"No one else can claim to stand for the whole country as the Gandhis.”

In the bewildering assortment of parties and personalities, most Indians find it hard to connect one Gandhi to the other.

None of the modern-day Gandhis is related to Mahatma Gandhi, who fought and won India’s freedom through a non-violent struggle. But they have certainly benefited from the charisma and luster that rubs off via the linkage.

“The Gandhi name is universally known and inspiring,” said Rajeev Gowda, a Bangalore-based politician who belongs to the Congress Party. “It touches a particularly powerful chord among India’s poor because of Indira Gandhi’s poverty alleviation programs,” he said.

The modern-day Gandhis are descendants of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru whose daughter Indira married journalist-turned-politician, Feroze Gandhi. Indira Gandhi went on to become prime minister.

Following her grisly assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, her son Rajiv Gandhi was elected prime minister. He too was brutally assassinated by a suicide bomber.

(Rajiv Gandhi at an election campaign meeting on May 5, 1991. Reuters)

Rajiv’s widow, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, took over as head of Congress Party and entered the political limelight along with her son Rahul and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

(Sonia Gandhi is garlanded during an election campaign rally in New Delhi April 29, 2009. Reuters)

She led the Congress Party to an unexpected victory in the last parliamentary elections in 2004. Amid cutting criticism about her foreign origins, she refused the prime minister’s job.

That the Gandhis still shape and influence the country’s politics is evidence that Indians cannot resist a political dynasty.

Taking their cue from the Gandhi family, several other sons, daughters, sons-in-law and assorted relatives of established politicians are contesting the 543 parliament seats in this election.

“Because of the Gandhi dynastic rule, merit has taken a back seat,” said Vineet Sharma, 25, a student at India’s top management school, IIM Bangalore. “Family-run companies can be handed from one generation to the next, but it is tragic that an entire country passes down to people with the Gandhi name.”

(Priyanka Gandhi at a campaign meeting for her mother on April 22, 2009. Reuters)

Though Rahul’s younger sister, the ever-popular Priyanka, has seemed the more obvious choice to succeed her father and grandmother, it is the reticent Rahul, 38, who is turning out to be the ascending star in a party.

Party insiders refer to him as yuvraaj or “crown prince."

(Rahul Gandhi waves to supporters on Jan. 30, 2009. Reuters)

The dimple-cheeked, Cambridge-educated Rahul Gandhi is one of many general secretaries in the Congress Party but has emerged as its lead election campaigner. He has only contested (and won) one parliamentary election.

In a country where one out of every two Indians is 25 years old or younger, Rahul Gandhi's youthful appeal is undeniable. The younger Gandhi is undoubtedly the busiest politician in the current elections, criss-crossing the country addressing election meetings and rallying support. (Citing his busy schedule, Rahul Gandhi begged off an election interview request from GlobalPost.)

Where Indian newspaper columns earlier devoted space to the Colombian girlfriend or the social outings of a man considered one of country most eligible bachelors, his restrained persona, sober speeches and political skills are now hot media topics.

These days, however, Rahul Gandhi has to share media spotlight with yet another Gandhi, his first cousin Varun, who was born in the same Indira Gandhi household. Varun is the only child of Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay, who died in a gruesome flying accident before his political career could take off.

(Varun Gandhi arrives at a local court in Pilibhit on March 28, 2009. Reuters)

The boyish-looking, gregarious Varun is the family's black sheep. He was jailed briefly for a controversial anti-Muslim speech and has since been branded by many in India's political elite as being unworthy of the Gandhi name.

And to drive home the point, Varun Gandhi abandoned several generations of family loyalty to the Congress Party when, in the current election,  he contested as the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party candidate in Pilibhit in central India.

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